Ocean Beach Park was built, from start to finish, in barely six months

The clock tower was the focal point of the new beach. The Gam building, right, and the boardwalk were inspired by Jones Beach on Long Island. (John Ruddy)
The clock tower was the focal point of the new beach. The Gam building, right, and the boardwalk were inspired by Jones Beach on Long Island. (John Ruddy)

As New London endured the tedious dispute over Ocean Beach property values in the summer of 1939, it was treated to an entertaining sideshow.

On June 21, the City Council voted on the date it would take over the beach. It also voted to appropriate $60,000 for architectural fees.

Two weeks later, two petitions were filed with the city clerk, calling for the measures to be repealed or submitted to a citywide vote. The clerk began the routine process of verifying that the hundreds who had signed were legal voters.

After the signers' names were printed in The Day, a few came forward to protest that either they had been misled or hadn't signed at all. Then a few other names caught the attention of officials. Charles D. Boss, Bernard Lynch, James Linsley and Wallace Johnson were all prominent residents.

They were also six feet under.

Closer inspection of the petitions revealed that three entire pages were filled with the names of dead New Londoners, all residing in Cedar Grove Cemetery. As officials solemnly declared that charges were possible, The Day gleefully ran photos of tombstones under the headline " 'Voice of the People' Speaks from Graveyard."

The signatures of the departed were all in similar handwriting, and the order of the names roughly corresponded to how the burial plots were arranged.

Eventually, a justice of the peace, a notary public and two circulators of the petitions were charged with perjury or falsely certifying an oath. A fifth man was identified as having signed the names. But the scandal petered out before it became clear who was ultimately to blame.

* * *

By December, the process that cleared the path for a new beach was complete. The city owned all 202 properties, and demolition had begun.

A governing board for the park had been created after a knock-down-drag-out fight on the City Council. Democrats William J. Brady and Joseph A. St. Germain walked out of one meeting and spent another in a shouting match with Mayor Alton Miner, also a Democrat. They felt the creation of the board was being rammed down their throats.

"When a man like you, Mr. Mayor," Brady said angrily, "holds himself out as a disciple of economy ... then suddenly votes to put the spending of millions of dollars of the people's money in the hands of a commission such as this, I smell a mouse."

But the council voted to amend the city charter to establish the seven-member Ocean Beach Park Board. Appointments gave it five Democrats and two Republicans, just like the council.

To pay for the project, the council decided to sell $2.5 million worth of bonds. The vote was 5-2, with Councilors Brady and St. Germain again opposed.

"If the council passes this ordinance," St. Germain declared before the vote, "I warn you, I will bring an injunction against this body." There's no indication he ever did.

Payne & Keefe, a local firm that had built the city's post office on Masonic Street, was hired as the architect and engineer. W. Earle Andrews, co-author of the beach plan of development, was retained as consulting engineer.

A former director of Jones Beach on Long Island, which had inspired the plan, Andrews was also consulting engineer for the New York World's Fair then in progress.

Five local architects had joined forces and offered to oversee the construction for less than Payne & Keefe. When they didn't get the job despite being the low bidder, they tried to force a referendum, and the delay cost the project three months.

By the fall, when Payne & Keefe drew up plans and released drawings, residents got a first idea of what their new summer playground would look like. Aerial perspectives published in September showed the bathhouse and service building facing each other diagonally and connected by a portico.

At the center of the boardwalk was the Whalemen's Memorial, an old try pot and harpoons that had been unveiled on the Parade two years earlier. This was soon replaced by a metal tower with a four-faced clock.

Architect Cornelius Flynn's design for the park was Art Moderne, a successor to Art Deco that featured horizontal lines, rounded corners, glass blocks, flat roofs and nautical elements like portholes and ship rails. The new home of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New London was being built in the same style that year. It was a cutting-edge look.

* * *

Just before Christmas 1939, construction began as a forest of wooden piles, supports for the new boardwalk, sprouted up around buildings still standing from the old beach. At the moment the piles were above ground, but they would soon be buried.

Dredges would pump in 300,000 cubic yards of sand from Alewife Cove and Long Island Sound to raise the beach 5 feet and extend its depth from 75 to 300 feet.

There were smiles all around in the office of City Manager John W. Sheedy when the city inked an agreement with Nunzio Corsino of Hartford on Jan. 15, 1940. Corsino would have the biggest job of the many contractors. He would build the bathhouse and service building.

The $193,000 deal called for work to proceed at a brisk pace. Both buildings were to be completed by May 25, in a little over four months, as the plan was for the beach to open June 1. But things started going wrong right away, and Corsino's partnership with New London was not a happy one.

Remnants of the old beach were still standing the day the contract was signed, preventing an immediate start to the work. Soil conditions caused problems with the footings for both buildings. The pumping in of sand clogged a catch basin, flooding the entrance to the site. A crane toppled, and four people were lucky to escape injury.

Corsino claimed Payne & Keefe were dragging their feet when he raised concerns, leaving him to wait helplessly. The architects countered that he caused delays by having too few men available. Day by day, construction fell behind.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Beach Park Board attended to a thousand details. A superintendent with Jones Beach experience was hired. Cashiers, nurses and lifeguards were sought to fill out the staff. A spouting sperm whale framed by a ship's wheel was adopted as the beach's logo. The service building got a name: the Gam, which means a meeting of two whaling ships.

Concessioners were chosen for food operations. Rates, fees and prices were adopted. The construction of an auditorium was considered, then put off.

By late April, as sightseers strolled the unfinished boardwalk, construction was six weeks behind, and frustrations boiled over. With opening day just a month away, the architects recommended that Corsino's contract be canceled. It's not clear what their backup plan was.

Corsino appeared before the park board with a detailed accounting of what had gone wrong. He calculated 75 days had been lost to matters beyond his control and asked for that much more time.

The board gave him 27 days.

* * *

With the steel flagpole in place atop the clock tower, mechanics rushed to connect the four octagonal clocks as well as loudspeakers and floodlights. It was June 28, two days before the opening.

The Olympic-size pool was filled with 450,000 gallons of water. Staging was removed from the two buildings, and the chef's staff prepared to feed the masses.

The park wasn't 100 percent complete. The bathhouse wasn't quite ready, and the "parking field" wasn't fully paved. But just 21 months after the 1938 hurricane, an unthinkably short time, a better Ocean Beach was ready to welcome the public.

As soon as former Mayor Miner cut the ribbon at the pedestrian entrance on Sunday, June 30, 1940, Eleanor Callahan of 10 Neptune Court bought a ticket and became the first paying customer.

The opening day crowd had plenty to take in. A circular lifeguard tower rose on a fluted column from a rock where the covered pier had stood. The lozenge-shaped flag bridge over the portico looked like a three-masted ship sailing onto the boardwalk.

Near the Gam were archery, shuffleboard and table tennis. Silhouetted brass directional signs, another Jones Beach touch, pointed the way to everything from refreshments to restrooms.

The weather smiled on a day of speeches, concerts, water follies, food and dancing. Everything went so well even Councilors Brady and St. Germain must have been pleased.

U.S. Sen. Francis T. Maloney and Gov. Raymond E. Baldwin praised the city for going it alone, without seeking state or federal funds. But Baldwin's young son summed up the mood of the day best.

"Gee, Dad," he said, "we won't have to go to Jones Beach anymore. This is swell."

j.ruddy@theday.com
Twitter: @jruddy64

 

Editor's note: The story is drawn mostly from the archives of The Day. Second of two parts.

The opening of Ocean Beach Park on June 30, 1940, was marked by a full day of celebration that ended with open-air dancing under the new clock tower. Harry Neilan's orchestra, left, provided the music. (John Ruddy)
The opening of Ocean Beach Park on June 30, 1940, was marked by a full day of celebration that ended with open-air dancing under the new clock tower. Harry Neilan's orchestra, left, provided the music. (John Ruddy)
The Art Moderne style of architecture, with its horizontal emphasis and use of nautical elements, can be seen in the bathhouse and flag bridge. (Day file photo)
The Art Moderne style of architecture, with its horizontal emphasis and use of nautical elements, can be seen in the bathhouse and flag bridge. (Day file photo)
Architect Cornelius Flynn, who designed the park, created this rendering, which is close to how it ended up looking. Notable changes include the look of the clock tower. (Public Library of New London)
Architect Cornelius Flynn, who designed the park, created this rendering, which is close to how it ended up looking. Notable changes include the look of the clock tower. (Public Library of New London)

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